In the shopping precinct that now clings to the skirts of the old Reading Room, a table is laid with portable derivatives of the Rosetta Stone. The number of them hints at a BM merchandising frenzy: for sale, and I may have miscounted, are a mug, a mouse-mat, a ceramic tile, a tie, a teacloth, a scarf, a T-shirt and two sizes of replica, all of them stamped with a presumably random excerpt from the Stone's inscriptions. It's long been the received wisdom locally that this fractured slab of granite is the collection's most looked-for exhibit, and it's certainly easier to get a clear view of the trade versions than it is of the original, which is screened daylong by visitors who not only go up unduly close - and would no doubt be fingering it, braille-wise, as they used to be able to, if it weren't cordoned off - but stay there for longer than they should, determined perhaps to make a standing start on a long since redundant decipherment. Their attention has been held, as must that of the French Army pioneers who first came across the Stone in 1799 when doing some spadework in northern Egypt, by the striking density of the signs incised on it - coarsely cut they may be, looked at one by one, but strangely elegant in the mass - and by the contrast between the three scripts that can be made out: from top to bottom, the hieroglyphic, the Egyptian cursive or 'demotic', and the Greek. This word-bearing object is so pleasing to the eye, indeed, that it could seem beside the point to want to know what the words have to say, when their gist may well fail to measure up to the allure of their incision. It did so fail in the case of the Rosetta Stone, whose wordings are versions in triplicate of a decree instituting a cult of the then - 196 BC - reigning Ptolemy. But because the Greek version could be read without difficulty, it served as an invaluable prompt to the decipherment of the cursive and the (damaged) hieroglyphic versions.
LRB 19 September 2002 | PDF Download